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More Newton, less Aristotle

By 30/11/2021No Comments

A fundamental principle of engineering is that to change something in a system you must be able to measure what you want to change. It makes sense: if I can’t measure what I do, how do I know if I have done it? If I want an engine to pollute less, I must be able to measure the pollution.

This may seem obvious to 21st century minds, but it is not so obvious. When Aristotle, one of humanity’s intellectual giants, was writing his treatises on nature, he never thought of measuring and testing his claims. For thousands of years we humans assumed that a 50-kilogram stone falls faster than a one-kilogram stone, until Galileo decided to check it and thereby triggered the race towards the Enlightenment (note: they fall at the same speed).

Public actions must be evaluated, the results of what is said or proposed must be measured.

In the financial world, the professional hobby of this columnist, there is an equivalent principle: what cannot be measured financially in euros does not exist. Thus, the way to measure a company’s performance is its profit and loss account. If you cannot measure euros, you are a vampire looking into a mirror, or as Emilio Botín used to say: “What are not accounts are stories”. It is accounting that allows shareholders to judge companies and it is the external auditors who validate the accounts.

There are important limitations as some things are difficult to quantify and assess, such as the quality of a joke or, in the business world, how do you know if a human resources department is doing its job well? The business world often answers this question by commissioning third parties to make qualitative and quantitative judgements on performance and results. The solution is not perfect and there are cases of manipulation and major errors, but the independent reports serve as a benchmark and in some cases provide valuable information. Whether these solutions work depends on the discipline, good faith and capacity of the actors.

In Catalonia, we have already heard the sound of a new think tank, Associació Catalunya sense Límits, which promotes the evaluation of public actions.

This brings us to the public sector: how to measure the impact and quality of the work of the different spheres of the administration, how to measure the work of the police, health, education or the opposition? If we ask ministers, councillors or the opposition, they will give us partial information. Logical, because there are few things more dangerous in politics than self-criticism, as the Tory Alan Clark said that “there are no real friends in politics, we are all sharks circling and waiting for traces of blood to appear in the water”. Nobody wants to play the fool.

So how can we be more specific in assessing public performance? Other countries measure the impact of their administrations with independent assessment agencies, auditors specialised in judging and assessing public actions. In Spain there is the Airef, a valuable and respected case of an independent valuation agency. These agencies can be public or emerge from civil society, and they help voters to have a say and force everyone to better measure proposals and more rigorously assess their impact. In Barcelona, for example, an independent agency could have helped in the debates about the airport or the Winter Olympics.

In Catalonia we have already heard the sound of a new think tank, Associació Catalunya sense Límits, which promotes the evaluation of public actions. Let’s support evaluations and let’s be obsessed with measuring the results of what is said or proposed, as Copernicus, Galileo and Newton taught us when they decided to test things.

Article in La Vanguardia: Más Newton y menos Aristóteles, por Marc Murtra (lavanguardia.com)

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